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"While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" is a Christmas carol describing the Annunciation to the Shepherds, with words attributed to Irish hymnist, lyricist and England's Poet Laureate, Nahum Tate.
The exact date of Tate's composition is not known, but the words appeared in Tate and Nicholas Brady's 1700 supplement to their New Version of the Psalms of David of 1696. It was the only Christmas hymn authorised to be sung by the Anglican Church; before 1700 only the Psalms of David were permitted to be sung. It is written in common metre and based on the Gospel of Luke 2:8-14, although the gospel's "peace on earth to men of good will" is modified to the more encompassing "goodwill henceforth from heaven to men".
It is the only one of the sixteen works in the 1700 supplement to still be sung today. It was published by Davies Gilbert (London, 1822), and William B. Sandys (London, 1833). The carol is most commonly sung to two different tunes: Winchester Old in the United Kingdom and a variation on a Handel aria arranged by Lowell Mason in the United States.
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In the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, the standard hymn tune of "While Shepherds Watched" is "Winchester Old" (initially simply "Winchester"), originally published in Este's psalter The Whole Book of Psalmes from 1592. This tune was, in turn, arranged from chapter VIII of Cambridgeshire composer Christopher Tye's setting of the Acts of the Apostles in 1553.
George Kirbye, an East Anglian madrigalist about whom little is known, was employed by Este to arrange some of tunes featured in his The Whole Book of Psalmes and it is his arrangement of Tye's work that appears in the psalter to accompany Psalm 84 "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place" with the melody in the tenor. The tune and hymn text were probably first published together in an arrangement by William Henry Monk for Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861.
Professor Jeremy Dibble of Durham University has noted that "While Shepherds Watched" was "the only Christmas hymn to be approved by the Church of England in the 18th century and this allowed it to be disseminated across the country with the Book of Common Prayer." This was because most carols, which had roots in folk music, were considered too secular and thus not used in church services until the end of the 18th century.
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David Weyman's adaptation of "Christmas", taken from an aria in the 1728 opera Siroe by George Frideric Handel was arranged by Lowell Mason in 1821, and it is now this version which is most commonly used in the United States.
It was set to music in 1812 in Harmonia Sacra. The hymn tune Cranbrook was written in 1805 by Canterbury shoe-maker Thomas Clark and named after the local village of Cranbrook. It was originally set to the words 'Grace 'tis a charming sound' written by Philip Doddridge but is now better known in the UK as the tune of On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at. Another popular tune for the hymn from around that time is Old Foster.
It has been set to numerous other tunes, most commonly "Martyrdom", written by Hugh Wilson in 1800 but with an arrangement by Ralph E. Hudson from around 1885, and "Shackelford" by Frederick Henry Cheeswright from 1889. Robert Jackson, parish organist at All Saints‘ Church, Oldham, Lancashire, wrote a tune to "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" in 1903 for the Westwood Moravian Church there. Called "Jackson's Tune," it remains popular there. In Cornwall, England the carol is popularly sung to "Lyngham", a tune usually associated with "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing". In the towns of villages in the Pennines of West Yorkshire such as Todmorden, "Shol Lane" is used. "Sweet Chiming Bells" is an alternative folk version, commonly sung in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire, which uses the verses of the hymn but adds a new refrain.
The title in the supplement was "Song of the Angels at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour", but it has since become known chiefly by its incipit. In Tate's original it appeared as Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (i.e. 'whilst' not 'while'), but most modern hymn books print "While".
A 19th century version by Gottfried W. Fink was While humble shepherds watched their flocks and other rewritten passages (see illustration). The Hymnal 1982 published in the United States also contained a number of other modernisations, including dropping "Hallelujah" as the final line.